During the pandemic, USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service largely replaced its in-country visitation teams with so-called remote verification audits. FSIS audits foreign countries that export meat and eggs to the United States to verify that equivalent food safety standards exist.
Typically, that means teams from the FSIS Office of International Coordination visit foreign countries for short periods to inspect facilities and regulatory offices. Such on-site visits were not usually possible during the early months of the pandemic and FSIS came up with “remote verification audits” as a replacement.
With international travel wide open again, one might expect that FSIS’ international inspection teams would be on the road again, but recently issued county reports tell a different story.
Remote audits are not going away as fast as one might expect, while in-country work still has its place.
Some examples of both from recent FSIS reports:
–A remote ongoing verification audit of Finland’s meat inspection system was issued on Feb. 4, 2022.
–A remote ongoing verification audit of Austria’s processed pork inspection system was issued on March 3, 2022,
–A remote verification audit of Costa Rica’s inspection system was issued on June 29, 2022,
–A remote ongoing verification audit of Denmark’s meat inspection system was issued on Sept. 2, 2022.
Also in 2022, however, FSIS shared plans with Paraguay for a “targeted onsite verification audit” to check up the old-fashioned way on that country’s “corrective actions.”
FSIS said Paraguay’s “documented meat inspection system appears to be providing an equivalent level of public health protection as the FSIS inspection system. However the targeted on-site verification audit is critical to verify the full implementation of the written controls within (the) country’s meat inspection system.”
That June announcement put Paraguay on notice that the FSIS team would be back on the ground to confirm that about a dozen corrective actions were really being implemented. These include such tasks from making livestock carcasses subject to chemical residue testing to testing for Salmonella.
All foreign equivalency audits by FSIS focus on six components, upon which system equivalence is based:
(1) Government Oversight (e.g., Organization and Administration);
(2) Government Statutory Authority and Food Safety and Other Consumer Protection Regulations (e.g., Inspection System Operation, Product Standards, Labelling, and Humane Handling);
(3) Government Sanitation;
(4) Government Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) System;
(5) Government Chemical Residue Testing Programs; and
(6) Government Microbiological Testing Programs.
Paraguay is also an example of where FSIS was back doing an in-country audit as early as 2021,
FSIS reports that it “audited Paraguay’s food safety inspection system from Nov. 1-17, 2021. The audit began with an entrance meeting on Nov. 1, 2021, in Asunción, Paraguay, during which the FSIS auditors discussed the audit objective, scope and methodology with representatives from the Central Competent Authority (CCA) – the National Service for Quality and Animal Health [SENACSA].
It reported that “SENACSA representatives accompanied the FSIS auditors throughout the entire onsite audit,” which was long the standard practice for the host country.
Virtual or remote auditing and inspection were part of the tracks that COVID-19 left behind. The Association of Food and Drug Officials (AFDO) called it “progress borne out of necessity” as regulatory agencies met both inspection and audit challenges. It resulted in new ways to assess compliance and remotely share sensitive information.
By Dan Flynn